With his ermine flowing robes, his gaudy jewelry and well, his very being, Liberace was Las Vegas embodied -- over the top, flamboyant, fun. Yet the joy of "Behind the Candelabra" (9 p.m. Sunday, HBO) is that it isn't. Well, it isn't over the top. It's a measured look at the pianist and his life with lover/assistant Scott Thorson, a sad story told with grace, humor and insight.
The film is told from Thorson's perspective. Thorson (Matt Damon) is a foster kid living in L.A. on a ranch with a foster family, estranged from his alcoholic mother. At a bar he meets Bob (Scott Bakula) and they start a relationship. Bob takes him to Vegas and to a Liberace show. Turns out Bob's a friend of the star's and when they go backstage, it's clear "Lee," as Liberace (Michael Douglas) is called by friends, takes an immediate liking to Scott. No matter that he's clearly involved with his onstage partner (Cheyenne Jackson).
It doesn't take long for Liberace to seduce Scott and move him into his mansion. And thus begins a five-year relationship. Relationship is probably the best word, "love" is questionable. It's clear that these are two damaged people. Liberace is at his height and is paranoid; he's afraid of aging, afraid only his fame keeps people near him, and yet constantly use his money to keep people close. Even his mother (Debbie Reynolds) is questionable. You can see Liberace's near desperation to please her. She seems to think she deserves a nice thick slice of his pie.
Thorson insists he's bisexual and he needs Liberace as a father figure as much as a lover. Indeed, he's not really a fully formed person when Liberace takes him in, so it's no wonder he suffocates and then falls apart when Liberace casts him aside.
Douglas is masterful as Liberace. He's not just playing a role; he embodies it. It would be easy to think of Liberace kind of creepy, but Douglas adds more layers. His Liberace can be manipulative, sad, needy, self-absorbed, funny, cruel but never truly mean-spirited. (Not to mention, we're reminded through his performance that Liberace was quite talented.) Damon, too, is great; the emotional journey his character goes through feels real, even as it is, in many ways, singular.
There's a terrific supporting cast. Besides Reynolds and Bakula, there's Dan Aykroyd as Liberace's manager, Tom Papa and Paul Reiser. Most memorable is Rob Lowe as Dr. Jack Startz, a walking, talking example of the kind of Hollywood plastic surgeon that should send you running but whom stars embrace because he'll give you what you want. One might argue that Lowe's portrayal is over the top, but I'm not sure. I'm afraid it might be on point. Either way, it's hysterical and disturbing.
Director Steven Soderbergh, working from a Richard LaGravenese script, takes his time telling the story. He's not so much focusing on us understanding Liberace, but instead understanding the time he lived in, how that time shaped his actions and the consequences. At one point, for instance, Liberace (so deep in the closet, he sues when a tabloid reports he's gay -- and wins) talks about adopting Scott to ensure that he will always be taken care of. It seems odd, of course, that a grown man would adopt another grown man, but then you consider that not only wasn't there gay marriage, there wasn't the thought of gay marriage. That puts the idea of a man adopting his lover in a different light.
"Behind the Candelabra," in simple terms, is the story of two men who find each other, and for a brief while, give each other what they need while living in a world where they can't fully acknowledge their tie. It's their story and our story. Except most of us didn't have the furs, the diamonds and the Rolls Royce.